Warning: Spoilers for previous seasons of The Walking Dead.
Chances are you gave up on The Walking Dead during its meandering second season, when Telltale did the obvious next thing and followed what happened to Clementine after Lee died, and totally whiffed it. Outside of genuine satisfaction at Kenny, the well-meaning asshole, dying, I cannot tell you a single thing about it. It was thoroughly forgettable, to the extent it's worth wondering if they'd have been better served treating The Walking Dead as an anthology series, and leaving Clementine behind. The temptation was too much, though. The third season was an improvement, but again, I can't remember much. People died?
In the first episode of the "final season," though, The Walking Dead regains its footing. (I'm putting it on quotes because I suspect the "final" part is ending Clementine's story.) Clementine, finally, has a purpose beyond helping Telltale mine nostalgia for a game that came out six years ago. She has purpose.
That first season of Telltale's The Walking Dead was special, one of the few games to generate the kind of dramatic tension reserved for TV's best. I laughed, cried, and screamed. It was a game based on a show based on a comic book about yet another goddamn zombie apocalypse, but to its great credit, a tired premise mattered little; zombies were incidental. The Walking Dead worked because of its characters, because of Lee and Clementine. But the series has been coasting on the genius of the first season for too long now.
I've heard other folks dropped The Walking Dead because the toxically libertarian, only-the-strongest-survive politics drove them away, and the game started to overly fetishisize death and murder at the expense of everything else. (This is common in horror, especially serialized horror, because it's a storytelling crutch.) For me, it always came back to the characters, and it was clear Telltale didn't know what to do. Put Clementine into another harrowing situation, have everyone die—rinse, repeat. It didn't have anything to say, and unlike other horror media, its shoddy visuals meant scaring you was out of the question.
Now, things are full circle. In the second season, Clementine found a young child, one she decided to adopt and protect. AJ doesn't call Clementine "mom," but for all intents and purposes, she's serving that role. (That AJ doesn't call her mother, a point so far unaddressed by the game, is itself an interesting narrative choice.) Hungry and exhausted, the two have been wandering around by themselves for what seems like months, and it's growing tired. After a food run goes awry, they end up in a rundown school where the adults fled the moment shit hit the fan, leading the children to take control and survive. Suddenly, there aren't any capital A adults around to tell people Here’s How It Is, providing room to wrestle with some big questions: If you were given a chance, how would you build a society?
In the past two seasons, both Clementine and AJ were little more than pawns in a larger game. They, and by extension the player, made "choices," but it hardly felt like actual progress in any direction. It lead to The Walking Dead running in circles, without much sense of where this was going. I wasn't asking for Clementine to solve the zombie plague or even get a happy ending, but the takeaway from every new season seemed to amount to little more than "Hey, being Clementine fuckin' sucks, and nothing is going to change that."
The cynic in me figures this: The Walking Dead has always been the most popular series Telltale produces, and after successfully making Clementine the star, she needed to stick around. This became increasingly true as Telltale expanded after The Walking Dead's surprise success, success that eventually came back down to Earth in the years after, cementing The Walking Dead's importance to Telltale's bottom line. And so, she stayed.
But if a character cannot be expected to die in a zombie apocalypse, where death is literally around every corner, you rob the storytelling of consequences. Everything is undermined.
Lee's death in the first season might have seemed inevitable, but it was still daring, because even in a post-Game of Thrones world, it's commercially and narratively risky to leave behind beloved main characters. It also means the creative team is forced to find new ways—characters, stories, situations—to make players care. Since Lee, The Walking Dead has been neutered. Lee and Clementine's relationship was a natural storytelling baton, and if you’ll let me indulge the cynic for another moment, it's often felt like Telltale executives wouldn't let Clementine to get close to anyone, a decision that only underscored what's been missing for years now: a heart.
AJ is that heart. Introducing a child comes with its own laundry list of storytelling cliches; traditionally in horror media, children are depicted as hapless creatures who only exist to get everyone else—namely, the adults, who clearly can do no wrong—in trouble. They generate noise, and make decisions without thinking beyond themselves. You cringe when they come on-screen because we've been trained to treat children as a red flag in these worlds. Yet, children are smarter than horror movies give them credit, for, and so far, The Walking Dead seems inclined to agree. AJ is a capable, thinking person, and while he actively relies on Clementine as a guide and moral compass, you don't just get the sense AJ has thoughts and feelings, you’re shown it; the game provides space for him to be expressive.
The gap of time between the third and fourth seasons of The Walking Dead is left unsaid because it allows them to jettison all of those characters and storylines, but in the intervening years, Clementine has tried to prepare AJ for life without her. That means, for example, letting him use a gun, which AJ hides in his back pocket. When the game revealed Clementine had trained AJ to use a gun on his own, it prompted my wife and I to pause the game and have a conversation about her choice, and if we'd do the same thing. It's been years since The Walking Dead provoked that! Because we were emotionally invested, we felt comfortable questioning their decision-making, and how it reflected back on our values.
AJ adds a much-needed element of chaos. As I've learned as a parent, while you can try to tell a child what to do, it's up to them to (or to no) make good on it. They are not a controller, and intentions are largely that: intentions. At several points in the episode, AJ makes a decision the player might not agree with. Some are small, others large. The lessons you've imparted may influence with the conclusion AJ draws, but how he gets there? Why he gets there? That's on AJ. One moment in particular produced genuine, slack-jawed shock. Cut to black.
You'll notice I've barely touched on the game itself, whether it's the interesting new characters, or how when it chooses, it can be genuinely scary. Or that Telltale figured out how to make action scenes tolerable with real mechanics, and gets around an aging engine through a striking art direction that fully embraces its comic book roots. Or how it quietly lays the groundwork for Clementine, who's never been allowed to entertain the notion of being happy, to consider intimacy with someone who isn’t a personal savior acting as a pseudo-parent. These points, while great, only work because the core—Clementine and AJ—does.
It's too bad it took The Walking Dead this long to find a heart again.
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